A beam of spotlight shone on sofas, enfolding my family with warmth in the dark living room. A stream of pompous words of a Cantonese talk show bombarded us from the 18-year-old television in the room. Listening to my native language, my heart sank little by little as I found the language that I was supposed to be familiar with extremely strange. Suddenly, my parents burst out laughing. Ghastly lights from the television reflected on their faces, making the elated upward corners of mouths stark and weird. I was frightened, not only because of their scary faces with deathly white lights, but also because I could not understand jokes in Cantonese. Studying in a school in which all my peers spoke Mandarin, I was immersed in an environment isolated from Cantonese. It seemed that I did not belong to the bright circle shone by the lights any more without Cantonese. I cowered in the dark corner of the sofa, hiding myself from the light so that my parents could not see my anxious, embarrassed face. Laughter rang louder. I guessed the host Mr. Huang told another joke and I still could not get it. I tried to stay calm and convinced myself that it was because these “vulgar jokes” would not amuse me as I grew older, attempting to forget the fact that I was no longer able to entirely understand Cantonese.
My bond with Cantonese continued to weaken. During the last year of junior high school, I was dedicated to prepare for the high school entrance exam in Mandarin. For the Chinese language exam, I had to memorize the pronunciation of countless Mandarin characters. Inconsistent with my current goals, Cantonese, whose characters sounded completely different from those in Mandarin, lost vigor in my life and gradually faded in my memory.
“Why is ‘?’ pronounced as ‘Cu’ ?” I was stunned, with my mouth widely open, “I have pronounced it as ‘Zu’ for fourteen years!”
“‘Zu’ is the pronunciation in Cantonese, not Mandarin.” My Mandarin tutor glared at me, “I have reminded you a hundred times!”
“I know. Languages always get messed up in my brain. Once I wrote down a French word in an essay; my English teacher strongly believed I misspelled the word even though I told her that it was French…” I felt the heat rising into my cheeks, and I started laughing, trying to shift the topic.
However, my laughter was cut off. My tutor’s eyes behind glasses filled with disappointment and anger intimidated me.
She frowned, “It’s not interesting at all. Your Chinese test score will be ruined by these stupid mistakes. Three points for a multiple choice are more than enough to drag you out of your competitive dream school. Try to switch your Cantonese mindset to Mandarin, and use it more often in daily life.”
Her words slapped me in face. All of a sudden, my face turned red as if I was standing in a crowd with my clothes stripped off. I never thought that my mother language, which I was always proud of, would be blamed for and stabbed my heart with the bitter remark.
Unfortunately, although her advice worked and my score did improve, I seemed to lose something more important. After the exam, I found some daily means of expression in Cantonese sounded strange, not to mention those that were used less frequently. Since my mind-set was switched to Mandarin, I had to translate Cantonese from Mandarin when I wanted to speak Cantonese. Translate. Like the way I speak a foreign language. I knew what I was losing---my mother tongue.
The turning point happened when I chatted with my English foreign teacher, who left his homeland, the United States nine years ago. His self-mocking tone was imprinted in my mind, “My American friends…and even my parents…laughed at my English. They said that I talk like a Chinese…in so many ways…word choice, sentence structure…” When I asked him if he felt sad about it, he answered with a bitter smile: “Of course! It was my native language! Who would be happy if people considered their mother tongue similar to foreigners’?”
It reminded me of my parents’ comments just a few days before our conversation.
“Did you just say ‘Zik Hang’? Oh my god…You just spoke like people from northern China.” My mother couldn’t stop laughing.
Glancing at my confused face, she explained, “It’s ‘Zap Hang’ not ‘Zik Hang’. You can’t use Mandarin pronunciation as Cantonese directly, my dear.”
I was so embarrassed that I wish I could dig a hole and hide myself in it.
I could perfectly empathize with my foreign teacher. I was afraid of speaking unnatural Cantonese while proudly claiming myself as local. I was scared that I could not fluently communicate with my grandparents any more who only speak Cantonese. I no longer wanted to experience embarrassment when my parents pointed at my incorrect pronunciations and jokingly questioned if I am a real Cantonese. The most frightening moment though, was when I found that some of my local friends also forgot Cantonese and the beautiful language might die out eventually because new generations like us gave it up.
I wouldn’t sit there and watch it happen. I started correcting pronunciations by asking my parents to help point out my mistakes. Then, I encouraged my friends to speak Cantonese out of school, and explored Cantonese culture together. Once we introduced Cantonese culture to people with different geographic identities by displaying clothes with Cantonese elements in a fashion show on the International Day. Fortunately, the process of picking up my mother language was not too painstaking.
The host of that famous Cantonese talk show Mr. Huang still tells jokes in pompous Cantonese fluently; our television is three years older since then, and is having difficulty making sounds as if an old man was mumbling; but now, I can laugh at those jokes with my parents. In the midst of the laughter, I am satisfied with a sense of belonging. Although Cantonese might not be helpful for my academic study, both in the past when I had to use Mandarin and at present when I need English, it is still my mother tongue. Why would I be proud of my cultural identity? It makes me who I am.